In his first year competing in NASCAR, rookie Chase Elliott has taken over the much-coveted No. 24 car previously occupied by Jeff Gordon, and has gone on to lead his team to a first appearance in the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup. On the opposite end of the spectrum, 3-time Cup champion Tony Stewart is competing in his last ever season. In an exclusive interview for Mobil 1 The Grid, Lee Spencer spoke to the pair of Chase hopefuls to find – perhaps unsurprisingly – a mutual respect.
Chase Elliott looked up to Tony Stewart from the very first moment he met him. Literally.
Understandably, the Hendrick Motorsports rookie’s first hero was his father, NASCAR champion Bill Elliott. But after the elder Elliott retired, Chase’s admiration transferred to Stewart.
“Tony is a guy I’ve looked up to for a long time,” said Elliott, who was a quiet four-year-old when he started hanging around Stewart’s car.
“As many of you guys know, Tony was the first guy, other than my dad, I was ever okay with pulling for. I’ve always had a lot of respect for him.
“I’ve enjoyed racing with him. I’m glad that he decided to wait one more year [before retiring], because that is a pretty special moment for me to be able to race against one of my heroes like that.”
The feeling is mutual. Stewart has enjoyed watching Elliott evolve into not only a Sprint Cup driver, but one of the 16 competitors that qualified for the Chase.
“I think he’s had an awesome year,” Stewart said of the rookie. “He’s done a great job. He’s gone to a lot of places for the first time and been spectacular in his first attempts there.
“So he’s definitely going to be a marquee guy. I mean, he’s already a marquee guy and he’s in his rookie season.”
Elliott, 20, became a ‘marquee guy’ the moment he signed with Hendrick Motorsports. Although there was tremendous pressure in getting behind the wheel of the revered No. 24 Chevy – made famous by four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon – Elliott has lived up to the challenge.
He earned the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500. Although he left Speedweeks 36th in the standings, it took Elliott just 10 more races to climb into the top 10, where he remained until the midway point of the season. Despite a midsummer lull, Elliott never dropped out of the top 15 in the standings before the seeds were reset for the playoffs.
Elliott’s teammate and former boss, Dale Earnhardt Jr., understands better than most the pressure that accompanies sons of successful racers. Before the season began, he suggested Elliott find the balance between work and downtime.
“They don’t need to work him too much outside of the racetrack,” Earnhardt said. “Let him drive these cars, work with his crew chief, do all the things he needs to do to get acclimated with the cars and then start to ask of him those responsibilities away from the track later on in the year.
“I remember my first year. We came in with guns blazing. We were running everywhere trying to do everything all week long and, by the time we got to Daytona, I was ready for the year to be over with. And the results showed, too, [during] the rest of the season.”
That hasn’t been the case with Elliott. Hendrick has surrounded the young driver with a support staff, led by crew chief Alan Gustafson. Since Gustafson graduated to his crew chief role at Hendrick Motorsports in 2005, with a rookie named Kyle Busch, he has led four different drivers to the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Under Gustafson’s tutelage, Elliott has posted eight top fives, including a third-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway, where he led a career-best 75 laps before a late caution sent the race into overtime and deprived the rookie of a probable victory.
Stewart believes Elliott’s time will come. Indeed, the three-time champion, whose first win came in his 25th start, believes the depth of talent in NASCAR is greater now than it was in 1999.
“I think there’s a big portion of him that’s extremely disappointed that he hasn’t won a race up to this point,” Stewart said. “But I think the competition level keeps going up, and it makes it harder and harder to win as a rookie.
“As time goes on, some of us that are getting up there in age and are retiring, he’s going to be the guy that’s going to carry the flag and carry the torch for NASCAR.”
And for Elliott, that next flag might just be the checkers. But if he’s going to pull off the win over the next nine races before Stewart retires, Elliott knows he’ll have to battle the three-time champion on his way to Victory Lane. If Stewart has left an impression on his fellow competitors over the last 25 years, it’s that he’s not going down without a fight.
“I don’t necessarily look at him any different than I do anybody else when it comes to a competitor or how you treat anyone,” Elliott said. “But I think he’s obviously done a good job. I have a lot of respect for him. I expect him to be strong in these next few weeks.”
If Elliott can adopt some of the fighting spirit that has helped carry Stewart throughout his career, then Smoke can exit Sprint Cup racing confident he is leaving the sport in the capable hands of his protege.